Until age 11, musician Mickey Church was legally blind. His world was like a late Monet landscape, colour, shape and soft edges but no clarity. Yet now he can see, and is creating brilliant, colourful music. The Newsroom caught up with him to discuss an amazing journey from audience to centrestage at the annual Coachella festival.
The blind Mickey Church was not a self-conscious child in the least: not seeing others, he just assumed others were not watching him. He lived in his own little world, dressing and acting as he pleased.
When his vision began to correct itself and he became aware – of the realities beyond his imagination, his whole world was turned upside down.
“I became super shy and hyper aware of everyone looking at me and would just assume that they were thinking something even if they weren’t.”
He was 11 when, after a decade of eye specialists, eye tests and eye exercises, his impaired sight began to correct itself, the photoreceptor rods and cones in his retina gravitating back together. “It’s more common than people think,” Church explained. “They can either move further away, in which case you go blind, or they contract and move closer together, and your eyesight slowly improves, which is luckily what happened with me.”
At first, the change was traumatic. When he donned his first pair of glasses, he was nauseous and vomited.
From the beginning, Church’s father, an accomplished African percussionist, had encouraged his son to pick up a variety of instruments, believing it would magnify his son’s other senses – a precaution in case his sight never improved. Mickey fell in love with music and continued to enjoy it even after regaining his sight, writing his first tune in high school. “No one has ever heard that song, and no one ever will hear that song,” he told the Newsroom.
Inspired by 60s garage rock and punk, Church moved to New York City to pursue a self-designed degree in the shamanistic ritual philosophy of music at New York University. While there he started recording songs in his dorm room. “I actually didn’t have any intentions of performing [the songs] live,” Church said.
“But then when I moved back to LA, I started practicing the songs with the dudes and took it from there.”
One of the “dudes” was White Arrows bassist J. P. Caballero, an old friend with whom Church had always felt a strange connection. Once the band got going, their parents revealed that Church’s father had been a sperm donor for J.P.’s parents, and he chose to keep in contact with the family.
“We grew up thinking our parents were old friends.”
Another of the dudes was Henry, Church’s baby brother, who started playing drums for White Arrows when he was only 16 years old.
Mickey Church is no Ray Charles, but his years of sightlessness are reflected in the impressionistic, sensory nature of his music. At live shows he demands heavy lights, fog and projection to dull the sense that the audience is staring directly at him.
“I am still uncomfortable with the idea of people looking at me. I like to be cloaked in sensory overload.”
He waxed philosophical about having no sight, and regaining sight: “It wasn’t like a freak accident happened; it was how I was born. It would’ve been one thing if I had sight then lost it.
“I kind of miss being that uninhibited, but after being able to see I don’t know that I could ever go back to being sightless.”
But he misses the lack of inhibition he felt when he could not see. To regain some of that sense of unconstrained imagination he has altered his wardrobe. “I’m entering a new phase of fashion right now. Leaf camouflage. I’m trying to blend into nature, to not stand out at all…” So now he can worry, instead, about standing out because he is wearing full nature camouflage in the city.
Since they released their first vinyl single, Get Gone on Brooklyn’s Ooh La La records in 2011, White Arrows have released their first album, Dry Land is Not a Myth. The track City Boy featured in an episode of the hit US television show Gossip Girl and was used in an Australian Hyundai commercial.
Mickey dreams of being “the first five-piece to perform in outer space” but for the moment he’ll settle for the thrill of playing at Coachella, his favourite American music festival. White Arrows debuted there at the weekend and will return for Coachella round two on the outdoor stage at 12:35pm this Friday. Watch this (outer) space. – Story and photos by Kristy Coulcher